Whenever I read or heard about the soul songs that slaves would sing, I never gave any thought as to what the songs really meant. I mean once you actually pay attention to the lyrics of any song, you learn a whole new meaning to the song itself. The thing is that most people don’t take the time to put the meaning of the lyrics of a song together and actually make sense of the song. In reality the lyrics to a song are the whole meaning behind the art of it. Everyone can definitely interpret the song a different way than someone else, and that is what’s so beautiful about it. A song can depict a grand message to all who listen to it and it has a different meaning to different people simply because of the way one interprets it. The song “Wade in the Water” was sung by Harriet Tubman in order for her to help escaping slaves. Slaves used songs in order to communicate with one another discreetly. (Pathways to Freedom)
The first recording of “Wade in the Water” was in 1925 by The Sunset Four Jubilee Singers. (Wade in the Water) Harriet Tubman sang this song, and many other songs as well, in order to communicate with slaves who were trying to escape from the slave states during slavery. This song in particular has a more valued meaning to it that only certain people would come to understand. Slaves already knew the secret meaning to these songs so they were able to determine what the song meant just by listening to it. It amazes me how communication through songs could even happen in such a time of despair. It is unbelievable to think that slaves couldn’t simply talk to one another but they had to find a way to do it in such a secret way because of course they would be tortured or killed if any white folk found out what they were trying to accomplish. African American folks were trying to get to freedom in such horrible conditions and having this knowledge of hidden music’s meaning is very astounding to me.
There was a lot of different spiritual and soulful music that slaves used in order to communicate with one another so that only they would understand the true meaning to it. “Wade in the Water” was sung by Harriet Tubman to tell escaping slaves that they needed to get off the trail and go into the water so that the slavecatchers dogs wouldn’t be able to sniff out the trail. When people walk through the water the dogs won’t be able to catch a scent and that way their trail won’t be exposed. (Calvin, Wade in the Water) ”Who are those children all dressed in Blue? God’s gonna trouble the water. Must be the ones that made it through. God’s gonna trouble the water.”(Pathways to Freedom) This last part of the song is saying that the people will make it through the path if they go through the water like they were told to do so. It’s intriguing to me to think that if you just heard Tubman singing on a regular day you wouldn’t be able to even imagine what she was really singing.
I said before that the first recording of this song was by The Sunset Four Jubilee. There are a lot of covers of this song to this day but that doesn’t mean that this song wasn’t sung before by someone a long time ago. There’s just so much history that comes along with soul music that it’s quite difficult to track down exactly who first wrote the song. When Harriet Tubman sang this song she did it out of care for the people she was trying to help escape the horrors of slavery. Tubman escaped from slavery in the south in 1849 leaving her family and husband behind as well. She was born to slave parents in Maryland, she knew what being a slave was like because she had the experience. She did work hard labor work and went through brutality as did all slaves. Tubman’s owner got sick and died and that is how she managed to escape. After escaping to Pennsylvania she still went back and forth between the north and south so that she could help other slaves escape using the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. Eventually there was a bounty on her that went up to $40,000. Harriet Tubman never lost a fugitive and she never allowed one to run back to the south out of fear. Tubman made at least 13 trips back and forth bringing people to north every time. Her husband, John Tubman, however declined to make the trip so he stayed in Maryland. (Patterson, Harriet Tubman) Tubman wanted a better life and she had a fear of being sold away like many of the other slaves would as well so she decided to run away. During the Civil War Tubman worked for the Union as a nurse, cook, and even a spy. She settled in Auburn, New York and passed away in 1913. (Patterson, Harriet Tubman) Tubman sang “Wade in the Water” and many other songs to portray different messages. For example, she would sometimes have to go stop to get some supplies so the slaves would have to hide and wait for her return, when she would sing one song twice the slaves would know it was safe to come out of hiding. If there was danger around, such as slavecatchers, then she would sing a different song and then the slaves would have to stay in hiding until Tubman would sing the “all clear” song. (Pathways to Freedom)
This song is significant during the slavery era because there were slaves who were trying to get out of the whole aspect of slavery itself. Slave revolts were so rare because they didn’t have the means to attack but running away became a very common form of resistance among slaves. All of these different soul songs that have secret codes made such a big impact on the lives of runaway slaves, because without them they wouldn’t have been able to escape in such a secret manner. Escaping or running away was a “trend that grew into the thousands and tens of thousands by Civil War”. (Pittman, 2015)
Slaves have always had to communicate with one another or simply care for one another in a discreet form because they had all these restrictions. For instance, in the movie “12 Years a Slave” when one slave was whipped in front of everyone the rest of the slaves wouldn’t be able to stand up and demand that their master stop hurting them or else they could be hurt as well or even killed. When they were alone the others would help the wounded and that was done in a secret way so that the master wouldn’t see that the slave they hurt was getting aid. (12 Years a Slave) Well with “Wade in the Water” Tubman used it as a secret way to inform slaves of a different way to go through the trail in order for them to be safe and not sniffed out by slavecatchers dogs. Throughout this course I have learned that slaves cared for each other but in a way that kept it secret in a sense. Black people only had each other so they had to care for one another in any way that they could and most of the time it was done through secrecy during this era. Slaves communicated through music by simply singing a song that has significance to them. To this day I think that soul music with secret codes have a very deep meaning to them that many people won’t understand just by listening to the song. I find that very interesting because through something so simple like a song you can get so many different meanings.
- “Pathways to Freedom: Music.” Pathways to Freedom | Secrets: Signs and Symbols | Music. ©2015 Maryland Public Television., 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
- Earl, Calvin. “Wade In The Water | A Black Spirituals.” Calvin Earl. Calvin Earl © 2015 • Calvinearl.com, 21 May 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
- “Wade in the Water.” Original Versions of Written by [Traditional]. © 2003-2015 Secondhandsongs.com, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
- Patterson, Tiffany R. L. “Harriet Tubman.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
- “Harriet Tubman C. 1820-1913.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
- Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015) Slavery and resistance [Escape/Running Away]
- 12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt. 2013. DVD.
By Debora Galeana
African American Studies 101, Autumn 2015